Mardi Gras: one last hurrah before Lent
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a kaleidoscope of colour, exuberance and great noise, when the Big Easy lets the good times roll
Participants of the Krewe of Zulu parade hand out painted coconuts to spectators; a reveller parades through the French Quarter. Photograph: Dan Anderson/EPA
After the feast comes the famine. It’s the day after Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the city is muted. They call it Trash Wednesday, as the move to clean up the city after the carnival excess goes into overdrive.
Hundreds of floats, thousands of parade-goers and hundreds of thousands of beads, trinkets and throws have left their mark on the city’s streets. The abandoned debris forms the bulk of what needs to be brushed up and shovelled away, although there are also unsteady human forms lurching around, in need of care and direction.
The day before, it is a much different scene. The city is a riot of colour, exuberance, noise, excitement and giddiness, as Mardi Gras marks the culmination of weeks of parades and celebrations.
It may be raining and unseasonably cold this year, but thousands still pack the streets to watch floats pass by; people jostle one another to grab beads and novelty items thrown their way by the passing “krewes”. While waiting for the next parade to come by, the people of the city lounge in portable chairs or throw another pork product on the barbecue, scoff a slice of king cake or open another beverage. One last bout of debauchery, one last blow-out, one last hurrah before the shadow of Lent falls.
There is much music, too, in the Mardi Gras make-up of masks, costumes and hoopla. You wouldn’t expect anything else in these parts. Down the years, New Orleans has produced several different worlds of music. Take the city from the map, as nature tried to do a decade ago, and you could wave goodbye to seminal, formative swathes of jazz and funk, bounce and brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and second liners, soul and blues.
That musical tradition is an essential component of the civic stock. A night at Preservation Hall, watching veteran musicians blasting through the traditional songbooks for the umpteenth time, will remind you that jazz was born here. Those seeking to pay further respects to that tradition head to Rampart Street, where Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios once put Fats Domino, Little Richard and Lee Dorsey on wax in a building that now houses a laundry.
Walk into a record store such as Euclid, down on the corner of Chartres and Desire in the Bywater, and you’re knocked out by the span of records in the racks dedicated to New Orleans music alone. You could probably spend the rest of your life digging liberally into the Crescent City’s music, and you’d be as happy as Larry with a po’boy on his plate.
It’s a city that still inspires and produces great music. The good work of Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair, The Meters and many more is mirrored in what the new kids, dons and shapers are doing. Music here is always moving onwards and upwards, always cognisant of where it came from, yet savvy about where it’s going.
Mardi Gras reflects and mirrors that musical gumbo. Between the tricked-out floats of a procession of parades winding their way up the leafy blocks of St Charles Avenue, brass bands and marching bands tramp by in their finery, blowing and banging as they go.
Off the parade’s main drags, bands and sound systems hold court, all the way from the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the heart of the Treme to the rainbow boulevards of shotgun houses around Faubourg Marigny. There is also plenty of the new local big noises, from Trombone Shorty to the Rebirth Brass Band, playing shows over the weekend to capitalise on the numbers in New Orleans and out on the town.
Of course, such tuneful excess doesn’t require Mardi Gras to flourish, but the annual hooley bolds, underlines and emphasises the connections between the music and the city. The French settlers who made it to Louisiana and threw the first Mardi Gras in 1699 to mark safe passage knew what they were doing when they introduced the Big Easy to its wiles.
New Orleans takes to the private balls and public parties of Mardi Gras with gusto. Even back then, N’awlins was a party town – writer and historian Robert Tallant described the atmosphere in the city at the end of the 18th century, saying “natives would step over a corpse on the way to a ball or the opera and think nothing of it”. The arrival of carnival krewes and social clubs on the scene is what grew Mardi Gras. These days, there’s dozens of these organisations, each helming a different parade over the fortnight before the big day and providing an outlet for fun, frolic and mischief for its members and followers.
The big ones on the calendar are the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, whose carnival king arrives wharfside by US naval boat on Lundi Gras to much pomp and ceremony, and the Rex club. In all, 67 krewes take part in 2014’s season, each representing a different neighbourhood or group, including dog owners (Mystic Krewe of Barkus) and sci-fi fans (Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus).
But there are other, less heralded groups who make an appearance on the big day and are as much part of the carnival tradition as anyone else. The Mardi Gras Indians may not work to the same rigid timetables as the krewes do for their parades, but they provide much colour and intrigue when they show up. David Simon’s excellent New Orleans’ TV series Treme features a very well drawn Mardi Gras Indians’ sub-plot, but the real thing is extraordinary to behold.
This year, under the bridge which skirts North Clairborne Avenue, a couple of tribes come out to parade and pirouette in the afternoon after the Zulu parade has played itself out. Each tribe comes with a Big Chief, Big Queen, Spy Boy, Flag Boy and Wild Man, all sporting incredibly detailed, hand-crafted suits of feathers and beads that take up to a year to make (hence why they stay under the bridge rather than see all that work washed away in the rain).
Soundtracked by chants, drums and tambourines, the Indians’ ritual jousts and challenges as they encounter one another is a reminder that New Orleans has many different deep cultural ties to bind the place together. This is living theatre honed by tradition.
Best foot forward
Mardi Gras puts all these connections on show. It allows the city to put its game face on and best foot forward. It allows its citizens, many of whom were tested to the utmost after Katrina battered and bruised the city, to throw back their heads, show defiance and let the good times roll once again.
However, those in town for Mardi Gras these days will note that a new kind of normality has taken hold within the city limits. In some parts of the city, such as the northern blocks of Canal Street, there’s now a rash of construction work going on, with new offices and buildings popping up. There are still parts of the city in need of a shine – many streets of the Lower Ninth Ward remain pockmarked and potholed after the hurricane ravages of nearly a decade ago – but the overall feel is of a city that has regained an equilibrium.
The next big date on the entertainment calendar is Jazz Fest at the end of April. It’s another occasion for thousands of visitors to drop by and sample what New Orleans has to offer, another twirl on the parade ground for the city’s music and musicians. And before you or they know it, Mardi Gras will have rolled around again. In Nola, the wheels keep spinning.